Contributed by Maurice Hines, Class of 2016, School of Library and Information Science at North Carolina Central University.
All of the founding towns of the Historic Black Towns and Settlements Alliance (HBTSA) were founded in the mid-to-late 19th century and were profoundly influenced by the self-reliance philosophy of Booker T. Washington. Similarly, in North Carolina, there was a town founded by African Americans in the midst of the Civil Rights Era with its own utopian vision known as Soul City.
Soul City was founded in 1971 in Warren County off of Interstate 85 near the Virginia border. Its brainchild was famed Civil Rights leader, Floyd B. McKissick, a North Carolina native who witnessed the problem of Black out migration from rural areas to urban epicenters in North Carolina and other Southern states, as well as to northern cities. He believed that changes in farming practices and the attraction of better-paying jobs in the cities led to this migration. However, Blacks confronted different challenges in cities, where they competed with others for the same jobs in addition to racial and economic discrimination.
McKissick’s solution was to devise a city located at a distance from any major urban area that would be Black-owned and operated while also being open to all races. This was McKissick’s way of consolidating “Black power,” by combining Black economic and political power with the consciousness of self-determination and working for a greater good.
To this aim, he strategically made alliances while campaigning for the election and re-election of Republican President Richard Nixon in the 1970’s. Nixon would later pass the Urban Growth and Community Development Act that allowed the United States Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) to guarantee $14 million toward the establishment of Soul City. In addition, he sought to make alliances within the Black business community to invest in the project. He also consulted local universities and the federal and state governments on various municipal matters.
McKissick’s vision mirrored that of Booker T. Washington and the towns associated with his legacy. Soul City was to be a catalyst for development in an economically depressed region. It was to be a “Free-standing” city that encouraged Black and other minority ownership. That is, a city in which residents had true freedom and opportunity for upward mobility; one that did not depend on others who have established themselves, rather one that was self-sustaining and an asset to others. In his words:
“The state of North Carolina will benefit economically by having a project like this. A project like this appeals to the self-interest of people. It opens thousands of opportunities, not just full employment, but upward mobility of employment to agree with the psychological man and his ego, to a great extent. Rather than throwing people together in a highly competitive society where there are only four or five leadership roles, Soul City opens up thousands of leadership roles…”
— Interview with Floyd B. McKissick, conducted by Jack Bass on December 6, 1973. Interview A-0134. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007)
Though Soul City did not succeed at meeting its goals due to years of litigation and negative press, its legacy demonstrates how African Americans have interpreted and
reinterpreted principles of self-determination from one generation to the next.
For more information on Soul City, check out these articles (#1, and #2), book (#4), video (#5), and pamphlet (#3) published in the North Carolina Collection.
- Biles, Roger. “The Rise and Fall of Soul City: Planning, Politics, and Race in Recent America.” Journal of Planning History 4, no. 1 (February 1, 2005): 52–72. doi:10.1177/1538513204269993.
- Fergus, Devin. “Black Power, Soft Power: Floyd McKissick, Soul City, and the Death of Moderate Black Republicanism.” Journal of Policy History 22, no. 2 (2010): 148–92.
- McKissick, 1922-1991, Floyd Bixler, Soul City Company, and Floyd B. McKissick Enterprises. “Soul City North Carolina,” 1974.
- Minchin, Timothy J. “‘A Brand New Shining City’: Floyd B. McKissick Sr. and the Struggle to Build Soul City, North Carolina.” North Carolina Historical Review 82, no. 2 (April 2005): 125–55.
- “SouthernWayTV.com – Soul City, NC.” YouTube, 2010. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cSUDfEVofqA.